Added: Tuesday 24th May, 2016
New Writing South's Annual Lecture with Nikesh Shukla
Nikesh Shukla's lecture about the need for greater diversity in books.
I’m going to start with a story.
In Fun At The Shops, a father takes his toddler shopping. They go to the green grocers, where they get crunchy green apples. They go to the florist, where they buy pink flowers for mummy — aside, this cementing of the patriarchy through gendered colours, let’s put a pin in that for another lecture — they splash in puddles because it’s raining and they choose yummy treats at the bakery. They then go home.
The book depicts a brown male, with a quiff, probably great looking, probably how I would look if I was at my optimum weight — aside, this body shaming through self-deprecating, let’s put a pin in that for an intervention — and his child, a brown toddler, toddling about in a yellow mac.
My daughter Sunnie has a yellow mac. So do I. We used to be in a gang, called Mac gang. Usually, it involved us both wearing our macs outside when it was raining. We graduated to hat gang when she grew too big for the mac. Sunnie is a brown baby. When we first read that book with her, we told her that she is the child in the book. Not many of our picture books that depict children instead of rabbits or Gruffalos have brown kids in them. They all feature what Marley Dias, the inspirational 11-year-old responsible for the project 1000 Black Girl Books, refers to as white boys called Josh and their dog.
This book, Fun At The Shops does have brown kids in it. Her face lit up the first time we referred to the child with her name. So we continued to do it.
She was now in the story. She could see herself.
You may think I’m racialising my kid, but she’s smart.
She is mixed race and she knows when she’s with my family, that they speak in one language, and when she’s with my wife’s, they speak another. The energies are different in the two environments. She is aware that she owns a yellow mac. She recognises herself in the mirror. And she can tell.
As people of colour, race is coded in everything we do. Not because we want it to be. But because it, as a social construct, is placed on us the second we are born, by everything. We wear it on our skin at all times. Decisions are being made about us because of our skin tone at all points.
Nowadays, she’s too big for her yellow mac, but we still read the book, and when we do, she points to the main character and says her name. When we’re in the bakery picking out a yummy treat, she will pick at the gingerbread man or the cupcake and mime eating it. She will, without fail, pretend to pick up the doughnut and give it to me. She feels like she is part of the story.
When we have read books featuring other brown children, on two or three separate occasions, she has pointed to the brown child, never the white one, and said her own name. She sees herself in the story. She is delighted to be on the page. She is ecstatic to see herself reflected back.
Now, you may think I’m racialising my kid.
I’m just being honest with her. She is a person of colour. And I, as her parent, am taking ownership of that. Before anyone else can.
She is a person of colour in England today, and I want to do justice to that by treating her like one, but in an empowering fashion, that allows her to take control of who she is and how she lets the world see her. She cannot do that without my helping her to manage that Asian half of her. It’s encoded in her skin. It will become encoded in everything she does.
So when we read books, we see a world reflected back to us. And I am trying to curate one that welcomes her and makes her feel included. Which means I search hard for books featuring black and brown characters, animals with ‘foreign-sounding names’. I do the work to ensure that her bookshelves are aspirational. They reflect a world back to her that she wants to belong to, one that validates her experience. One that treats her as a human.
The writer Reni Eddo Lodge once said that race is ‘not a singular and distant part of our lives for it cannot be abandoned or compartmentalised’. Rather, it’s intertwined with everything we do. She talks about how people of colour deal with race in their everyday lives because their lives are racialised against their will. That is the reality of race today. And she’s right. Race compounds, affects and directs everything we do. So much of how I act and conduct myself is about ensuring that this complex part of me is not erased.
Last week, a charity worker stopped me in the street. I wore a beanie hat that says YAAR on it. YAAR is a Hindi innit, a speech tic that is almost untranslatable. It’s a way of emphasising, imploring. The charity worker said, ‘great pirate bants, mate. Yaaaaaar.’ I turned to him and said, it’s Hindi actually. He was distraught. What does it mean? he asked, embarrassed. I told him what I told you, it’s a way of saying innit, it’s an idiom, almost untranslatable. There for emphasis. My wife felt I was rude to him, but I felt the compulsion that Reni describes to not have that part of me erased, to wear it proudly on my chest, or in this case, my head, as if to say, this is my normal speaking voice, yaar. Hear me. This part of me cannot be abandoned or compartmentalised.
Back to my daughter: when she sees herself in books, as a main character, not as a sidekick, doing normal things like going to the bakery, the green grocer’s, buying pink flowers for mummy, her actual experience is normalised. She isn’t other. She is normal.
I’ve written about this before but representations of South Asians in fiction are often fetishised, romanticised views of a stereotype. There are tropes these characters adhere to. And none of those tropes represent the lived experience of me, my daughter, or our family today.
She doesn’t see herself in a saree, necessarily. She doesn’t see herself in a mangrove swamp. She doesn’t see herself eating a mango as the sun sets through the bunyan trees. She sees herself doing the things that reflect the life and the society she is growing up in. She sees herself as an active member of Britain right now. Those other things, the sarees, the mango sunset, the bunyan tree, they are part of her heritage and should never be erased, but she should not see herself in books as only the sum of only these tropes.
In the books I curate for her, she gets to see herself as the main character, a person of agency. She can be empowered to feel like she can be in any space, do anything, and it be normal for her to be there. Not only that, but other kids who might, as she gets older, treat her differently, make judgements on how she should be as a person of colour, because they may not have seen positive representations of brown people in books, only scary hoodies, terrorists, goofy computer support analysts, they get to see her in a normalised environment. And not treat her differently.
Does she need to see herself in books in order to appreciate them?
No. Not necessarily. But it remains an entry point for her. She can, like you and me, appreciate books about boy wizards, kids with kestrels, lions, witches, wardrobes, Tracy Beakers, and not necessarily see herself. Only their universal experience. But seeing herself, her very self will have been validated by Fun At The Shops. That books shows her that she exists too. In White Teeth, Zadie Smith talks about the experience of realising you’ve been erased. I have to thank the writer Varaidzo for reminding me of this quote, but Zadie writes: There was England, a gigantic mirror, and there was Irie, without reflection.
When we only see ourselves as stereotypes that have no bearing on our lived experience, we operate without reflection, and wonder, just what is England mirroring?
Do we ever wonder, whenever there’s another newspaper story or statistic about young people reading, about teenagers switching to phones and games and Netflix instead of books, do we ever wonder, maybe those things mirror their existence more closer than YA books do? Because teenagers absorb more peer-created content than any other generation. Through Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Buzzfeed, Vice etc. They are so in touch with their peers that their education comes, not through books, but through content. They don’t feel that the classics, the canon, the curriculum-approved novels are relevant, or teach them anything about storytelling or language that they can’t get through online content. Because content is malleable and adaptive enough to reflect their lives, and for the writers to look just like them. So, yes, they’re reading less. And that’s ok. Because they’re just reading less of what institutions deem important. Instead, they’re embracing their peers.
Another question I ask myself a lot is, does my daughter need to see herself in books in order to succeed?
I wholeheartedly think that what we believe we can achieve, our levels of attainment, can be traced back, in part, to what we absorbed as children. In books, in TV, in films, in songs, in family dynamics sure, but a large part of who I am, is down to the books I sponged up as a child. To what England, going back to the Zadie Smith quote, was a giant mirror for.
For me, growing up, it never mattered that Spider-Man was white. I understood this was the default. If I wanted stories about people who looked like me, I had to watch Amitabh Bachchan exact violent justice on criminals in 70s and 80s Bollywood films. Or I could read the comic book adaptations of The Mahabarata and The Ramayana mum bought for me, in an attempt to wean me off white superheroes fighting villains through the cityscapes of New York and get me on to brown superheroes fighting villains through the jungles and palaces of ancient India (well, before India was even a concept in the British Empire’s evil eye). And growing up in the West, in Harrow, in London, none of those things resonated with me.
So I stuck it out with Peter Parker. I could relate to his universal experience – feeling torn between two worlds, watching my guardians (well, parents) work their arses off to support me, not wanting the Green Goblin to release his goblin serum into the city sewers.
Then came rap, and I fell for her hard. I idolised, to a problematic level, gangster rappers because they offered me something my own culture couldn’t – contemporary heroes. I holed myself up in my bedroom and instead of rereading Spider-Man issues, I was transcribing Snoop Doggy Dogg and Ice Cube lyrics into a notebook.
Chuck D was right. Not only were none of my heroes on no stamps, but they weren’t in popular culture yet.
The one place I was allowed to make cultural choices without any kickback from my mum about its appropriateness was the library. She and I went every week – she for her next stash of Mills and Boon novels and me for whatever I wanted, Star Wars tie-in novels, crime thrillers with half-a-page sex scenes, romps about naughty boys taking on demon headmasters.
I found a copy of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. I noticed it because Mr Kureishi was the name of the man with the Datsun who used to drive boxes of bootlegged Bollywood tapes round the Asian houses, renting them out. So I knew this Kureishi was brown. And I was brown.
We were both brown.
I flicked through the opening pages, reading the first few lines with curiosity.
‘My name is Karim Amir and I am an Englishman born and bred…’
It changed my life. I had found my mirror.
I found a hero to root for, someone who looked like me, understood what I was going through and didn’t require any suspension of disbelief to try and empathise with. Karim Amir, with his confusion and awkwardness and needing to belong, it was exactly what I had been looking for.
That was the only book I found in that library by a non-white writer.
Chinua Achebe famously said, if you don’t like the story, write your own. If I could add to that, I’d say, if you can’t find your stories, that means you haven’t written them yet. I wrote Coconut Unlimited as a love letter to that confused kid in the library. I hope it finds its future-me.
And now Spider-Man is a brown kid called Miles Morales. Ms Marvel is Kamala Khan. Hermione Granger is black.
We can have heroes to root for.
No longer do we have to run into the kitchen when Goodness Gracious Me is on, or there’s a comedic brown character in an episode of Only Fools And Horses, to tell mummy to come watch. Because we have the Masoods, we have Aziz Ansari, we have Rue in the Hunger Games.
Therein lies the danger of what Chimamanda Adichie refers to as the single story, though. Because much as it’s great that we have the Masoods on television, we have to be aware that that’s all we get. Just one. And if we only have one representation of our multi-layered, how will we ever be seen as complex?
And because we have that one representation of our culture, our lives, our very being, we are creating a mono-culture. And it’s dangerous. Especially given how few writers of colour manage to secure a publishing deal. For every Zadie Smith, there are hundreds of writers of colour rejected because the agent wanted the book to be ‘more like Zadie Smith’. Which is impossible. At the same time, writers will be penalised for being too much like Zadie Smith. It’s an impossible yardstick to be measured by.
I was told by a fiction editor that the idea for my first novel was too niche, because stories about Asians didn’t sell well. It was nice to know that my skin colour was being treated not only as a marketing trend, but a failure of one at that. That there is a genre called ‘Asian story’ and it was not lucrative.
My first novel was once rejected by a literary agent who felt that the characters weren’t "authentically Asian enough". Which was surprising, given that I’m Asian. I’d obviously neglected to include any mangrove swamps, sarees, mango sunsets or bunyan trees. This is a racist piece of feedback. It dehumanises. It stereotypes my lived experience. It holds power because it is founded on ignorance and used as a way to shut conversations down. This person, he was a gatekeeper. Still is. I think he’s still agenting. How do you write your truth when comments like that are put in the way?
One of the biggest anti-diversity arguments tends to be that the reason writers of colour don’t get published as much is because their books just aren’t as good, because only the best books get published, because only the books with literary merit make it on to our shelves.
Let’s analyse this.
This argument is unequivocally saying that out of the 184,000 books that were published in 2013 alone, each of these were the best books out of all books that had been written, submitted, considered, acquired and published. Out of the hundreds of thousands of books written in 2013, the publishing industry got it right and published only the 184,000 best ones. And the overwhelming majority of them happened to be white authors. White writers alone were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the 184,000 books published in 2013. The 184,000 best writers in the country are overwhelmingly white.
Statistically, this just cannot make sense.
Going back to the two phrases that always clang whenever I engaged in these arguments, who decides what authenticity means? Or literary merit?
These are both entirely subjective terms that hold the world of books so woefully back, we’re starting to feel archaic. I feel embarrassed when people hide behind them, use them as if they have any worth. I feel a bit like, ‘awwww, that’s cute, you think literary merit is a thing. You think that everyone has equal opportunities and feels an equal invitation, knows they have equal access and therefore only the best books are chosen and on that fact alone, you think that literary merit is a thing. Oh god, you think the 184,000 books that were published in 2013 alone were the 184,000 best books out of all the books written. Oh mate. Really? Really?’
Authenticity is another fictional anomaly, like literary merit, that doesn’t mean anything. What is authentic? And more importantly, to who is it authentic? If we go back to Chinua Achebe’s quote: If you don’t like the story, write your own, authenticity means being true to yourself and the story you want to tell. No one else can tell you how authentic it is, to you, to your cultural background, to where your parents are from, and therefore, as long as your work tells your truth, it is authentic.
I did an interview once. The interview was about how writers have to make peace with their work once its finished, how to know when a book is finished, how to stop yourself from constantly editing it until a day past your death. I was interviewed alongside five other authors. Reading the piece, it didn’t occur to me that the six authors interviewed were people of colour. We were interviewed by a lovely writer called Huma, one letter off Human, and yet the comments on this article, this seemingly innocuous article, dispensing helpful writing advice were vile.
And perhaps vilest of all, was a comment by a fellow author. I’m going to paraphrase because the comments have closed on the article so I can’t cut’n’paste word-for-word. Just trust me on this.
This fellow author said, who are all these people the author has interviewed? I’ve never heard of them. It’d be useful to have writing advice from people we’d heard of. Not the author’s mates. I mean, did no one notice they were all Asian? I imagine they’re all her friends.’ Now, I hadn’t ever met the journalist before. We’d chat on Twitter every now and then. I knew one of the interviewees very well, and the rest not so much. But the insinuation that we didn’t deserve to be at the table, that we were probably friends of the Asian author because all Asians know each other, the constantly having to justify our space at the table, I thought, this is an industry that will never embrace me fully.
An aside: we don’t like white people to know this but you’re right. We do all know each other. There is a secret cabal of Asians in the media. And yes, we are talking about all you white people. You know where this cabal exists? In group Twitter DMs and in the corners of events, where no one else will think to look. You know why this cabal exists? Because if we’re made to constantly justify our seat at the table, if we have to put up with this level of micro-and-macro-aggression just to be able to do the things we love, if we have to sit and eat ***** all the time, well, there’s no way we won’t find the only other people of colour at the event. They will be the only ones near to understanding what we’re going through. So when people think that all brown people know each other, it’s true. But only because that’s one of our methods of survival. We don’t initially know each other. But we’ll ***** well be best friends once we find each other.
Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of the single story, Kerry Hudson talked about the fact that we, as a country, as a literary tradition, as readers, are losing stories. Sathnam Sanghera said that Asian authors are ‘never allowed to be average'.
This idea that there is one single story for people of colour — all people of colour, all elements of diversity — and if we are to get one shot at getting that single story published, it better be award-winning, or bestselling. We will be measured on scales that pit us against the canon: The God Of Small Things, Midnight’s Children, The Buddha Of Suburbia, White Teeth, Americanah.
Think of all the books rejected because they were never as good as The God Of Small Things, think of all the books rejected because they were too similar to The God Of Small Things. I know it seems strange to be using a, albeit hypothetical, book that wasn’t as good as The God Of Small Things as an example, but remember the statistic - 184,000 books published a year. Remember the many derivatives of 50 Shades Of Grey, Harry Potter, Wolf Hall, Da Vinci Code. Remember the one about the middle-aged professor, a white guy, having an affair with an impossibly attractive student and then having a bit of a think and a midlife crisis. That’s most of literary fiction. The book about the naive kid who falls in with an exciting and rich crowd of society’s big shakers, falling in love with someone out of their league. Most of literary fiction seems to be happy to publish endless versions of Philip Roth or F Scott Fitzgerald. And all the while those books are getting published, we are losing stories, and stereotyping the people of colour who tell them.
The poet Musa Okwonga, once told me, ‘true diversity is about people I don’t rate having opportunities, people I think are average getting publishing’. I love this idea. Diversity isn’t about people I rate writing excellent books. True diversity is when authors of colour get to write terrible re-hashes of 50 Shades, Harry Potter, Wolf Hall, Da Vinci Code. I want what Sathnam wants. Average Asian writers. By golly, I know they exist. But I want them to have publishing deals. I want terrible ones to have publishing deals. I want true diversity to reflect that we can tell good stories, bad ones, average ones. True diversity is about the people I think are terrible having a book deal, and the only thing holding them back is their inability to write, not their skin tone.
When we say we don’t need to see ourselves in stories, we need to be careful.
Take the examples of Doctor Strange, a forthcoming Marvel film starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a mystic sorcerer, and Ghost In The Shell, a live action update of a seminal Japanese manga. In Doctor Strange, a character called The Ancient One, traditionally generically East Asian (that’s a problematic thing for another time), is played by Tilda Swinton. While getting a female to play a male in a crowded male universe — the superhero one — is excellent, getting a white person to play Asian is whitewashing. It’s Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, it’s Linda Hunt in The Year Of Living Dangerously, it’s one more Asian actor told that they’re not good enough to play one of the few roles actually originally envisaged for them. Colourblind casting is supposed to try and give more roles to actors of colour, not take them away.
And then we have Scarlett Johansson playing Major Kusanagi. Ghost In The Shell is an important piece of Japanese culture. While there have been many examples of re-imagining films in foreign languages in Western environments, e.g. The Departed, a remake of the Korean film Infernal Affairs, this is different. She still has a Japanese name in this. The film company spent a bunch of money screen-testing special computer effects to make Johansson look more Japanese. What’s wrong with a Japanese actor? If you’re trying to make your white actor look more Japanese, you must really not want anyone Japanese to be in this film.
And if we go back to the example of The Departed, and the history of reimagining films set in different countries and languages in the US or UK, for example Old Boy, The Seven Samurai, etc., you start to wonder whether men, teenage to twenties, most likely white, for they are often the target audience of these films, you start to wonder whether they need to see themselves in films. You start to wonder whether they need to see themselves in books. You start to think, they do not believe that a Japanese woman of agency could be in a film like Ghost In The Shell, they would find The Ancient One in Doctor Strange less impressive if the character was played by an East Asian character, you look at Infernal Affairs and think, well maybe teenage straight white guys just won’t find this as engaging and thrilling and action-packed and tense with all the subtitles and funny accents. Let’s just re-set this where they’ll understand.
Star Wars has proven to be the most exceptional exception to the rule, where in the new films, a badass woman, a black man and a Latino man save the galaxy from the evil white guy. And I’ve read so many anecdotal stories, thanking Disney for making this trilogy inclusive, showing their kids that they can save the galaxy, that science fiction doesn’t need to be white men and women and bears saving the galaxy from the British, lead by someone with a Lord-like name. Calling themselves the Empire.
And as we know, straight white boys tend to go on to rule the world.
They would benefit the most from seeing other cultures, races, colours in the media they absorb.
And my kid, she needs to see herself, with agency. Otherwise she will let the cycle of empire rule by straight white boys perpetuate, because that’s how she’ll see the world working. It may sound like a small thing, the books we read with our kids when they are small, but they need to be diverse, they need to reflect everyone, for the benefit of humanity. I don’t want my child to grow up in a world of whitewashing, of colour blind casting making the world less diverse.
When people say they don’t read to see themselves, they read to see other parts of the world, I understand what they are telling me. They’re saying they want to holiday in different cultures, be a tourist in different lives in different environments, either aspirationally or just to take a break from themselves. I understand that. But you can only do that from a place of privilege, you can only go against the grain because you are over-represented. You can only decide to go and holiday in another culture because you know there are hundreds of books that speak to your experience. And often, we’ll find that the one book we read that tells us about another culture, while we holiday there for 400 pages, inevitably it will become all we know about that culture. And that is dangerous. We need to recognise that not all of us have the luxury of reading to witness other worlds. Often we’re reading to validate ourselves, understand our own existence, find out how we fit into the universal experience, that our experience is universal yet unique, that our culture isn’t being fetishized or romanticised, or worse, erased.
As readers, we, for we are in this room because we are readers, we may be writers, editors, poets, aspiring, twice published, journalistic, publicity, whoever we may be, we are in this room because we are readers. Not only that, we’re here, in this lecture, because we want the world to be a better place, so as readers, I want us to do me a favour.
We need to show the gatekeepers what we want to read. We have the power. We buy the books. We read them. We tweet about them, blog about them, give them as gifts, suggest them for bookclubs, support libraries and independent bookshops.
We, each of us, in our capacity as readers, we are the single most important people in the entire book industry, people like my daughter, who sees herself in books and therefore shouts ‘again again’ when we finish books, desperate to live in the pages once more, she is the most important person in the entire book industry, because she loves reading now, and we need to retain her.
We must remind gatekeepers - the people who decide what to publish that this is not good enough, to only show a part of the world, to only cater to white readers, to only show the experience of white people, that is not good enough, to dehumanise people of colour by negating their experience unless it is romanticised in some way, is not good enough.
We must remind gatekeepers that there is not a business case to be made out of increasing diversity, because until gatekeepers are more diverse, it’s just another form of exploitation. The business case for diversity is still just white people making money from writers of colour. When gatekeepers are more diverse, maybe we can then make the business case for diversity. Instead, let’s make the human case for humanity.
We just want good stories. And we want those to not just be a single story.
We want to read books where every experience, every background, every culture is normalised, and the story, the story is king, where we reflect either the world we live in or the world we want to live in, aspirationally. We want to see ourselves, and each other.
We want, not your empathy for our existence. More, we want you to know that we are here, as part of the gigantic mirror that is England, and our existence is normal, human and universal.
I’m asking for my daughter, and everyone else like her, who wants to see a world reflected back to them that they aspire to be a part of.
Then, only then, can we live happily ever after.
The New Writing South Annual Lecture was delivered on 22 May 2016 at Brighton Dome Corn Exchange.
Copyright Nikesh Shukla, not to be reproduced without permission.